Zones of Disengagement | The Nation


Zones of Disengagement

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Stanley Baldwin once said that "the difference between a man of intellect and an intellectual, was the same as the difference between a gentleman and a gent." His remarks were quoted approvingly by Margaret Thatcher soon after she became leader of the Conservative Party. Baldwin and Thatcher's words seem to sum up an important aspect of British history. Intellectuals are vulgar, fake, left-wing and, most important, un-English.

About the Author

Richard Vinen
Richard Vinen teaches European history at King's College in London. His latest book is A History in Fragments: Europe...

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Those convinced that there are no English intellectuals point to philosophy. All French people study this discipline at school, and some of France's most prominent thinkers (including those, such as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who later attain fame for their work in other areas) study it up to the postgraduate level. Philosophy in France is taken to mean a concern with the big questions and with the ways in which previous writers have addressed them. Academic philosophers in England, by contrast, spend much of their time explaining the large number of broad questions to which philosophy cannot furnish answers. They are often concerned with narrow questions of language--it has been said that the whole of existentialism rested on a failure to define the verb "to be." French 18-year-olds write essays that are full of words such as "immanence"; English philosophy dons write books with titles such as How to Do Things With Words.

At second glance, things are, as ever, more complicated. The fact that many English people dislike the word "intellectual" does not mean that they dislike the thing--Margaret Thatcher did not like the words "bourgeois" or "privatization" either. Besides, there have obviously been English intellectuals, and some of them are drawn from the very circles--Conservative and upper-class--that are normally assumed to be most immune to the sins of "intellectualism." The Third Marquis of Salisbury (who was prime minister for thirteen years) was an intellectual by any definition: He wrote articles for the Quarterly Review, and the leading journal of the British intellectual right during the 1980s was named the Salisbury Review in his honor. Salisbury's nephew Balfour wrote "A Defence of Philosophic Doubt" in his spare time while being a Conservative minister. Baldwin himself played the bluff English squire but spent much of his time in Aix-les-Bains; he claimed to be uninterested in general ideas but published his essays in a book with the sweeping title of On England and Other Addresses. He was much influenced by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, who was described by Julien Benda as the archetypal English nationalist clerc. The novels of Anthony Powell and the cartoons of Osbert Lancaster often revolve around the curiously blurred frontiers between Belgravia and Bohemia--a frontier inhabited by men with clipped accents and regimental ties who turn out to be interested in the novels of Virginia Woolf or the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.

Stefan Collini encapsulates some of the paradoxes that dominate discussion of English intellectuals. In spite of his exotic name (it is interesting to speculate on how his work would be received if he were called "Steve Collins"), Collini is an English professor of English literature at an English university. He is also well versed in Continental academic life, particularly that of France. By his own definition (of which more below), he is an intellectual, but he also has a skepticism and a distrust of grand theory that some might see as quintessentially English. Perhaps for this reason, he has mainly communicated his ideas, so far, in essays and extended book reviews. This book seeks to bring his arguments together.

Collini begins with definition. He is not concerned with intellectuals in the "sociological sense" (meaning those who follow particular professions) nor with intellectuals in the "subjective sense" (meaning people who think). Rather--sailing between the Snowvian Scylla of statistical analysis and the Leaviste Charybdis of value judgments about the intrinsic quality of people's writing--Collini wants to look at intellectuals in the "cultural sense." By this, he means that an intellectual is characterized by an authority that has been established through "creative, analytical or scholarly" work, by access to means of communication that take intellectuals' views to a wider public than that reached by his or her initial work, and by the fact that his or her views intersect with matters of wider general interest. To sum it up crudely, intellectuals for Collini always have some public dimension. The phrase "public intellectual" originated in the United States, but the real innovation of American life is the "private intellectual"--that is, one who addresses general issues but does so in such obscure publications, and in such opaque language, that he or she can only reach his or her own colleagues on the faculty at Duke or Yale.

Collini's definition of an intellectual can be illustrated with a brief look at the two leading English literary periodicals. The Times Literary Supplement is not an intellectual publication (though intellectuals sometimes write for it). Its reviews are brief, rarely more than 2,000 words. Reviewers are expected to keep their egos in check (until quite recently reviews were published anonymously). The London Review of Books is an intellectual publication. The names of reviewers are important (more so than authors of the books under review). Reviews are long (never fewer than 2,500 words) and writers are encouraged to expand on their own views. A quintessential LRB piece was by David Runciman. Ostensibly reviewing a book on game theory, Runciman embarked on a rather confusing point about jelly beans before getting on to his favorite hobbyhorse (denouncing Tony Blair), which he then rode for the rest of the piece. The quintessential TLS review of recent years, by contrast, was about punctuation in successive editions of Jane Austen's novels.

Collini proceeds to take on some commonly held assumptions. First, he tries to show that there are, and always have been, intellectuals in Britain. He argues that the much-vaunted peculiarities of England often revolve around a misleading comparison with France: England seems more normal if it is compared with, say, Denmark or Belgium or the United States, where intellectuals in the early twentieth century were sometimes seen to be imitating British models. He also argues that the "other" with reference to which intellectuals are often discussed is sometimes chronological rather than geographical. This means that people often talk as though there was once a golden age of the intellectual, which has been destroyed by the impossibility of tackling broad themes in an age of extreme specialization. The idea that there was a golden age of generalists who could range over the whole cultural field is unlikely to win over anyone whose professional duties have ever required sitting next to elderly classics dons at dinner. Furthermore, it might be argued that relatively recent academic disciplines--sociology, cultural studies and queer theory--have actually encouraged their practitioners to operate across a very wide range. In any case, definitions of what an intellectual might be expected to know have changed. When Aldous Huxley was at school, in the early twentieth century, education meant primarily the ability to put chunks of Milton into Latin and Greek. Around the time of World War I, classics declined--Huxley was one of the first important Englishmen to study English literature at university. By the late 1920s (according to Evelyn Waugh), the books of Huxley himself were expected to feature on the bookshelves of any intellectual Oxford undergraduate. Now no one at a fashionable London party would be expected to have read Eyeless in Gaza, but everyone would be expected to know that Jim Morrison named his band after Huxley's The Doors of Perception.

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